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Zoning At The Heart Of Salt Lake's Affordable Housing Woes

Photo of houses in Salt Lake City.
Brian Albers
In Salt Lake City, 15% of the land is reserved for single-family homes, while 6% allows multi-family development. The city's planning director, Nick Norris, says that has been a major barrier to making housing more affordable.

Utah is often praised for its ability to weather economic storms that can hit other parts of the country much harder. But it hasn’t been able to protect itself from an issue plaguing many growing American cities and counties: rising housing costs. 

In Salt Lake City, planning director Nick Norris said some of the area’s growing affordability problems can be traced to the way it manages its land. Only 21% is set aside for housing, with a majority of it restricted to single-family homes, according to a recent analysis by the planning department.

“It was pretty startling when we broke it down because I don’t know that we’ve ever really made that connection that 80% of the city can’t have housing in it,” Norris said. “That puts a ton of pressure on the remaining land, particularly when more than half is zoned only for single-family dwellings.”

Credit Courtesy of Salt Lake City Planning Division
In this map of Salt Lake City showing where housing is allowed, single-family zones are shown in yellow. Purple refers to multi-family and mixed use development. No housing is allowed in the gray areas.

That kind of restrictive zoning has widely been viewed as one of the primary barriers to building more housing and, by extension, reducing housing costs across the country. It’s even become an issue in the 2020 presidential election.

Many cities across the U.S. are beginning to rethink long-held zoning rules, and Norris said Salt Lake City will need to do the same if it wants to meet the challenges of a growing region. 

City officials tightened zoning laws in the mid-1990s, which made it more difficult to build “invisible density” into neighborhoods made up primarily of single-family houses, Norris said. Invisible density refers to buildings like townhouses, backyard cottages, and small apartment buildings, which can increase a neighborhood’s housing options without fundamentally changing its look and feel. 

Norris said the city needs to rethink those laws, “particularly around our main streets and business nodes. And [asking], ‘what is the right type of housing in those places and what is an acceptable level of change?’”

While the city has recently introduced measures to increase density in some ways — allowing residents, for instance, to build accessory dwelling units (ADUs) in their backyards — Norris said it’s not enough. 

But the challenges extend beyond rewriting the rules. City councilman Andrew Johnston, who also serves on the Utah State Commission on Housing Affordability, said one of the biggest obstacles to introducing neighborhood change has been getting residents on board, many of whom may not be used to living in denser, urban settings. 

“If the public is not being brought along the process of growth and some of the dilemmas we’re facing, we’re not going to have enough people supporting even great ideas to move forward effectively,” he said. “We’re still going to have battles that will slow us up.” 

Norris said some of the invisible density approaches could be a middle-road to help people rethink density in their neighborhoods, though the broader conversation still needs an overhaul. Norris and Johnston both said that they get a lot of feedback on what people don’t want in their neighborhoods. Norris suggested though that the conversation should focus on how neighborhoods can help address the issues the city is facing.

Jon reports on quality of life issues, education and the economy
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